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Press Eviction Sparks Fight

by Roll Call Friday, Jul. 06, 2001 at 2:00 PM

Senate Democrats are moving ahead with plans to evict the non-daily press corps and the photographers from their galleries

July 5, 2001

Press Eviction Sparks Fight

By Paul Kane and Mark Preston

Despite pleas from dozens of news organizations, Senate Democrats are moving ahead with plans to evict the non-daily press corps and the photographers from their galleries in order to make room for the chamber's officers.

The moves, which Democratic aides insist will go through by the August recess, have set off a round of recriminations among the press and left Republicans in the somewhat unusual position of defending the media.

Reporters are particularly irate over the fact that Democratic leaders broke the news to them last Friday at 5 p.m., with no prior consultation, even though periodical reporters have occupied their gallery since 1947.

"The dictatorial way in which this announcement was made severely damages relations between the media and the Senate," Rick Maze, a correspondent for Army Times, wrote in one of many letters that Senate leaders have received from media outlets protesting the move. "Repairing the rift, no matter what the outcome of the proposed move, will be difficult."

Democratic leaders initially told reporters and photographers to vacate their galleries by this past Monday morning, right on the eve of the Independence Day holiday. The Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees all office allocations, backed off later Friday evening after howls of protest.

While representatives from four different press galleries vowed to keep the rooms in the media's hands, Senate Democratic leadership aides said reasonable space other than the two offices currently occupied by the Periodical Press Gallery and the photographers gallery would be given to the media.

"The Rules Committee needs these two rooms and the Rules Committee has the authority to take these two rooms," said one leadership aide, referring to the Rules and Administration Committee, which has oversight of all office space decisions in the Senate.

Democratic aides stressed that there was still plenty of time before a move would have to be made, but one aide noted that Rules Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) would prefer to have it settled before the August recess. Other aides have suggested that the moves will not occur until once the recess begins.

Regardless of the timing, Dodd sees no other option but to move the press. "We have no place else to put the officers of the Senate," one aide said in reference to the Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-at-Arms.

With Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers over who is to blame for causing the ouster, the media representatives dug in and pledged to fight the evictions.

"We're not planning on moving out at this point," said Cheryl Bolen, a reporter with the Bureau of National Affairs and chairwoman of the Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents.

"Ever," added Maze, a former chairman of the periodical committee. Roll Call is also a member of the periodical gallery.

Their comments came after an emergency meeting Monday of the chairmen and members of executives committees of the Senate's four press galleries, covering daily print media, periodicals, photographers and radio/television. That meeting produced a letter in which the media committees strongly objected to the pending moves, which have been tentatively proposed as combining the four galleries into two with extra space being allocated at a yet-to-be-determined location.

"It is our unanimous opinion that relocation into the Press and Radio-TV galleries is not in the best interest of the media and would work undue hardship on all," the letter, signed by the directors of the four galleries and eight members, said.

After the meeting, some media members called for a face-to-face meeting next week with Dodd and Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) specifically to address the issue.

A Daschle aide said that the Majority Leader would be willing to talk about the issue, but declined to specify a time to do so while he is traveling in South Dakota for the July Fourth recess.

"Given the fact that he meets with the press every day, I'm sure he and Senator Dodd will find a way to address that concern," said Anita Dunn, Daschle's spokeswoman.

Dunn said the press moves were necessitated by Minority Whip Don Nickles' (R-Okla.) decision to take Sergeant-at-Arms James Ziglar's office on the third floor of the Capitol, which is next to the periodical gallery.

Nickles was bumped from his second floor office by new Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Rather than take Reid's first-floor office, Nickles took the third-floor Sergeant-at-Arms office - a move that set off what Democratic aides called a "domino effect" that led to the reporters and photographers losing space.

Nickles' office sharply disputed this assertion last week, producing a floor plan showing the Minority Whip was not taking any space that led to the press moves.

With Nickles in his old office, Ziglar moved into the old Reid suite. It has a sweeping view of the Mall, but is smaller and less convenient for getting to the Senate floor.

To make up for the lost square footage, the Rules Committee gave the Sergeant-at-Arms Room 151, which is right next to Reid's old office and had been used as a meeting room for Senators.

Democratic aides said that the loss of Room 151, coupled with the fact that Vice President Cheney's Senate office is now off-limits because it is constantly in use, has left Senators of both parties with less space to hold meetings near the Senate floor.

To make up for the lost meeting space, aides said, Rules decided to claim Room 219, which is currently occupied by the Secretary of the Senate. It has not been determined yet who will get the other second-floor office currently used by the Secretary of the Senate.

The Secretary of the Senate will move up to the third floor into Rooms 317 and 320, which are currently occupied by the periodical and photographers' galleries.

"They're losing [Room] 151 only for one reason, the assistant Republican leader taking the [Sergeant-at-Arms'] space," Dunn said.

But Republicans noted that it was the Democrats' decision to claim Room 219 for meeting rooms that ultimately led to the media's office shuffle, and said the Democrats should have at least presented the journalists with a plan for what rooms they would be given in exchange for 317 and 320.

"Unfortunately, the only plan the Democrats seemed to have was to throw the press out into the street," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Democratic aides suggested that Dodd consulted leaders from both parties, as well as Democratic and Republican Senators on the Rules panel, but the chairman made all the ultimate decisions in the current plans.

"The bottom line is, the buck stops with the chairman of the Rules Committee," one Democratic aide said.

Democratic staffers contend that the real problem is the continuing crunch of space in the Capitol, particularly with the growing leadership staffs. The aides suggested that the problem would be alleviated if the Capitol Visitor Center is built, which would open up office space under the East Front lawn.

Still, media representatives said they shouldn't be the ones to suffer from a partisan battle over space. "The galleries should not be part of leadership squabbling over office space, no matter who is responsible for this particular 'consolidation,'" said Ed Pesce, director of the Senate Periodical Press Gallery.

In the wake of last fall's elections, which left the Senate in a historic 50-50 split, the number of reporters and photographers covering the chamber has grown substantially, according to Pesce and other Senate observers.

Pesce estimates that there are 15 to 20 reporters working out of the periodical gallery on any given day, a number that doubles during significant events such as Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-Vt.) decision to leave the GOP. In the photographers gallery, about eight "shooters" regularly use the room every day, growing to as many as 30 during prime events.

"We need more space, not less," Pesce said.

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